Tea Party Taboo: The Atheism of Ayn Rand

It began without controversy. At a routine board meeting of the North Star Tea Party Patriots (NSTPP), a coalition of activist groups in Minnesota which this author chairs, a vote was taken to admit a new member organization. The new group was the Minnesota Objectivist Association (MOA) which advocates the philosophy of Ayn Rand as expressed in her novel Atlas Shrugged. Though not a Tea Party organization in name, MOA was nonetheless supportive of the movement’s mission and principles. Signs reading “Who is John Galt?” in reference to Rand’s novel had been a staple at Tea Party rallies since the movement began.

Within days, word got around to the broader NSTPP membership that MOA had been admitted. Pushback began. Some complained that MOA did not have “Tea Party” in their name. Others noted that MOA was not listed on Tea Party Patriots’ national directory. The concern over these relatively minor points seemed disproportionate. Provision had been made in the NSTPP constitution to include organizations which predated the Tea Party movement yet sought the same ends. A group without “Tea Party” in its name had been admitted before.

After some beating around the bush, the crux of the matter emerged. Ayn Rand was an atheist, and her philosophy of Objectivism did not acknowledge the existence of God. Thus was alleged an irreconcilable difference between the Tea Party and Ayn Rand.

As the controversy progressed, MOA ultimately withdrew from the coalition, citing the episode as a needless distraction to all parties concerned. Precluding debate left some important questions unresolved. What role does religion play within the Tea Party? Must one be a theist in order to be philosophically aligned with the movement?

These questions are important because their answers define what the movement is really about. Is it solely an effort to affect fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets? Or is it something more which goes unsaid? Is the movement on a mission from God? Or are its principles applicable to the religious and the non-religious alike? The answers to those questions could affect the integrity of the movement.

The role of religion in the Tea Party evokes the role of religion in government. How we view the separation of church and state informs how we emphasize our religion in political activism. Debate on the intent of the establishment clause typically falls into two camps. Religious activists observe that the words “separation,” “church,” and “state” are found nowhere in the First Amendment. They argue that the establishment clause was meant to protect the church from the state, but not necessarily the state from the church. Many secularists, on the other hand, see no place for religious expression in the public square. Atheist groups make headlines seeking to remove the Ten Commandments from court houses or nativity scenes from town halls.

Neither of these perspectives sees the whole picture. There is a difference between separating church and state and separating religion and politics. The first is possible. The second is not. Church and state are institutions of authority, one ecclesiastical and the other civil. By saying “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” the First Amendment builds what Jefferson called “a wall of separation” between those institutions. This denies any church the use of force, and denies the state jurisdiction over religion.

Next: Is atheism anti-American?